Bringing Colston Down
The statue of Edward Colston that Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down this week was put up in the centre of Bristol in 1895. A Bristol-born merchant, Colston made much of his fortune from his 12-year involvement in the Royal African Company (RAC), which transported more than 84,000 slaves between 1680 and 1692. John Locke and Samuel Pepys were among those who profited from investments in the RAC. Before he became notorious as a slaver, Colston was glorified throughout Bristol for his donations to hospitals, alms-houses and churches.
A plaque on the plinth declares that the statue was ‘erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the foremost virtuous and wise sons of their city’. The other sides of the plinth depict Colston giving alms to paupers; a dolphin plugging a hole in one of his ships; and a group of mythical sea creatures. So the statue appeared in 1895, and so it still appeared more than a century later, until it came tumbling down last Sunday during the Black Lives Matter protests.
Less than a week ago, many of Bristol’s institutions bore Colston’s name. The performing arts centre Colston Hall was established on the site of Colston’s School in 1867. Colston Tower, an office block, was built in 1973, on Colston Avenue, just opposite the statue. ‘It was not until one night in 1998,’ Adam Hochschild writes in Bury the Chains, ‘that someone scrawled on its base’ the words ‘slave trader’. This was the first in a series of artistic engagements with the Colston statue that have mixed parody, pathos and anti-colonial resistance in remarkably creative ways.
In May 2018, I discovered the bronze statue’s face had been spray-painted white, with a red ball and chain attached to his legs. The timing was no accident: the trustees of Colston Hall had recently voted to ditch the slave trader’s name. The decision, reached after decades of campaigning by Bristol’s Afro-Caribbean community, was controversial. Petitions circulated, signed by thousands, objecting to the name change. There was a call to boycott the music hall, but it stood firm in its decision to remove his name. The new name should have been announced this spring, but the pandemic has delayed things. It will happen in the autumn, they now say.
Bristol City Council was less responsive. Instead of removing the statue, the council agreed in February 2018 to add a second plaque to the plinth, which would draw attention to Colston’s involvement in the slave trade. The wording of the plaque became a subject of intense contestation. The Society of Merchant Venturers – which was formerly involved in the slave trade as well as putting the statue up in the first place, and continues to act as a local charity – tried to influence the outcome. In a dramatic move, Marvin Rees, Bristol’s first mixed-race mayor, cancelled the dedication ceremony the day before the rewritten plaque was scheduled to be attached to the statue’s base in March 2019. ‘It was extremely naive of the Merchant Venturers,’ the mayor’s office said, ‘to believe they should have the final say on the words for a new plaque for the statue of Edward Colston without reference to the communities of descendants of those Africans who were enslaved and treated as commodities by merchants like Colston.’
Amid the backdoor negotiations between the council and local stakeholders regarding the wording of the plaque, local artists took matters into their own hands. After the spray paint was removed and the ball and chain cut away, I woke one morning in October 2018 to discover rows of miniature stone figures lying on the ground in front of Colston’s statue.
The figures were arranged in a simulacrum of human cargo on a slave ship, with labels that drew attention to the persistence of slavery in modern times: kitchen workers, farm workers, sex workers, domestic workers, car-wash attendants, nail-bar workers. The labels around the bow of the ship said ‘here and now’.
These artistic engagements with the Colston statue were reported by the local press, but treated as stories of merely local interest. In the years since, the activist-led call to confront Colston’s legacy generated plenty of support as well as opposition.But rather than build on these creative forms of public history from Bristol’s citizens, the city authorities seemed more interested in keeping resistance and dissent out of view. The ingeniously crafted stone figures were gradually removed. As with the removal of the white paint and Colston’s ball and chain, the return to normality took place in stages, as if the authorities were wary of publicity and eager not to attract further controversy.
And so the statue of Colston stood, unchanged since 1895, until last Sunday, when it came tumbling down with astonishing ease. Even more surprising, its end was accepted as a fait accompli by every stakeholder involved, including the Merchant Venturers, who refrained from criticising the act of statue toppling and instead acknowledged: ‘We must continue to educate ourselves about systemic racism.’ One after the other, Bristol’s cultural and civic institutions began removing traces of Colston’s name. The tenants of Colston Tower removed their sign and declared plans to select a new name. Colston Hall’s signage disappeared.
Removing Colston’s traces from Bristol of course doesn’t mean that racism has disappeared from the city. One possible replacement for the statue would be a plaque to commemorate Bijan Ebrahimi, the victim of a white supremacist murder that was facilitated by police misconduct and institutional racism in 2013. But the BLM protests showed that Colston’s weighty legacy was less substantial than we had imagined. Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol city poet, wrote a poem on the occasion of the statue’s toppling:
But as you landed, a piece of you fell off, broke away,
And inside, nothing but air.
This whole time, you were hollow.